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The Madwoman in the Volvo

The Madwoman in the Volvo is the much-anticipated memoir based on the 2012 Best American Essay by Sandra Tsing Loh, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly. By turns hilarious, dark, candid, and surprisingly informative, Loh’s stream-of-consciousness account of her menopausal madness was virally Xeroxed and shared from woman to woman. These women are part of a new wave Loh dubs “Generation Triple M” (Middle-Aged Moms in Menopause), which includes women who, while technically childless, are caring for someone, often an elderly parent. It’s a historically unprecedented phenomenon: at 48 million members, middle-aged women are America’s largest demographic group, and they are juggling caregiving, work and relationships while going through menopause, a time when ancient tribeswomen went alone to a cave. With such pressure, something will blow. Loh’s own roller coaster included an affair with a married man who then left her, the explosion of her marriage to her partner of 20 years and father of her children, and a despairing withdrawal to a tiny cabin where, haunted by insomnia, she combined too much wine and Ambien, causing her right arm to paralyze into a claw. Surprisingly, deeper research into the biological science of menopause that this was all normal. In this witty, humane and compulsively readable book, Loh eventually deduces that this midlife “madness” is less about menopause than the madness of the world and madness of trying to maintain appearances during an epic hormonal—which means physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual—change. The upbeat conclusion: it does get better.

In the author’s words:

“At 47, I began experiencing not just varying periods, hot flashes, worsening insomnia and bloating but terrifying inky moods I started to call “Attacks of the Darkies.” These were sudden downward icicles of depression, grief, despair and a kind of emotional flatness that made me dread facing my own children, for fear they would look into my eyes and realize I didn’t love them any more. I eventually learned that this chemical seachange was part of the onset of menopause (rather than myself going mad, which seemed frighteningly likely). When I turned to the literature of menopause, however, I found a raft of cheery self-help books (with daisies and white doctor’s coats) which seemed to suggest if I just adopted such standard Spartan health practices (taking vitamins, doing yoga stretches, cutting out alcohol and caffeine and drinking eight glasses a day of water) all would be well. I felt there were no books that addressed the real ferocity of this passage, and that gave women truly useful and hopeful counsel. My feeling is that there are no rules at this time: if staying in bed all day eating ice cream and watching HGTV is what a woman needs to survive to the next day, by all means she should do it. Adding more virtuous tasks to their to-do lists is the opposite of what already multi-tasking middle-aged women need. In short, I wanted to write the book that would have helped me in my deepest hour of need, in hopes that it will become a useful tool for others negotiating this passage.”